State of the Beach/State Reports/CA/Water Quality

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Water Quality Monitoring Program

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) signed into law on October 10, 2000, amends the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), incorporating provisions intended to reduce the risk of illness to users of the Nation's recreational waters. The BEACH Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award program development and implementation grants to eligible States, Territories, Tribes, and local governments to support microbiological testing and monitoring of coastal recreation waters, including the Great Lakes, that are adjacent to beaches or similar points of access used by the public. BEACH Act grants also provide support for development and implementation of programs to notify the public of the potential exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in coastal recreation waters. EPA encourages coastal States and Territories to apply for BEACH Act Grants for Program Implementation (referred to as Implementation Grants) to implement effective and comprehensive coastal recreation water monitoring and public notification programs. CWA section 406(i) authorizes appropriations of up to $30 million per year to develop and implement beach programs. Unfortunately, only about one-third that amount has been authorized each year since the program's inception. In recent years, the total funding available for BEACH Act grants has been about $9.5 million. Funding beyond 2012 has been in jeopardy, since EPA's budget requests for this program in FY2013 and FY2014 were ZERO (money for testing in 2013 and 2014 was ultimately allocated as part of Continuing Resolutions to resolve the Federal Budget impasse) and there was also no money for beach testing in the FY2015 budget. Again, it was restored at the last minute as part of a Continuing Resolution. It is very discouraging to have to fight for this basic funding to protect the public's health at the beach every year. Thankfully, there is a growing movement to provide stable funding. Unfortunately, in 2017 the situation is even more dire. If available, funds are allocated to the states and territories based on a formula which uses three factors that are readily available and verifiable: (1) Length of beach season, (2) miles of beach and (3) number of people that use the beaches. California was eligible for a $485,000 grant in fiscal year 2016.

These funds support only a small portion of California’s beach monitoring program. In addition to the BEACH Act grant monies, the state has historically allocated about $1 million for "AB 411" monitoring from April 1 to October 31, plus another $100,000 for monitoring San Francisco Bay beaches in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, and San Mateo counties. As mentioned below, this state funding was abruptly ended in September 2008 and "stop-gap" funding was then secured for 2009 through 2011, until a new source of funding through the State Water Resources Control Board was identified for 2012 and beyond. Monitoring activities are conducted by county health departments and other entities, who in some jurisdictions spend considerable additional funds on top of what the state and the BEACH Act grant provide.

The following description of California's beach monitoring program was taken from the website of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

California has some of the most popular beaches in the country. Over 150 million day visits are generated by tourists and residents use them annually to swim, wade, surf, and dive. Beach visitors spend over $10 billion each year in California. For this reason, beach water quality monitoring and strong pollution prevention measures are critical for protecting beach goers from waterborne diseases. Indicator organisms from warm-blooded animals (total coliform, fecal coliform, E. coli, and enterococcus) may not cause disease in humans, but their presence tells us that water may be contaminated with organisms that do cause health impacts ranging from fever, flu-like symptoms, ear infection, respiratory illness, gastroenteritis, cryptosporidiosis, and hepatitis. We use indicator bacteria because direct identification of pathogens, such as viruses in ocean water is difficult, time consuming, and expensive. Not only can humans be affected by these organisms in the ocean, but research into the cause of mortality among the threatened southern sea otter population, shows that infectious agents have been caused by protozoal parasites and bacteria that are spread by fecal contamination of near shore marine waters by terrestrial animals.

Sources of contaminated water include point source runoff (from a known source) to non-point source runoff. Contributing factors that generate these sources include illicit storm drain connections, improper disposal of materials which clog pipes and cause sewer system overflows, cracked or damaged pipes, overflow of sewer systems during storm events, septic system leaching, non-point pollutant loading exposed to storm runoff, and various domestic and wildlife fecal sources.

Beginning in 1999, Assembly Bill 411 (AB411) required local health officers to conduct weekly bacterial testing between April 1 and October 31 of waters adjacent to public beaches having more than 50,000 visitors annually and that are near storm drains flowing in the summer. County Health Officers can take three discrete actions based upon beach water quality monitoring data, sewage spills, and storm events:

  • Beach Advisories or Beach Postings occur when at least one bacterial standard from the Ocean Water Contact Sport Standards issued by the California Department of Health Services, has been exceeded. Warning signs alert the public of a possible risk of illness associated with water contact. The placement of signs may be short term or more permanent where monitoring indicates repeated contamination (e.g. from a storm drain). Warnings may be posted where sources of contamination are identifiable and can be explained as not of human origin (e.g., resident marine mammals or seabirds) or of an unknown source.
  • Beach Closures occur as a result of a known sewage spill that has the potential to reach coastal waters. A closure is a notice to the public that the water is unsafe for contact and that there is a high risk of getting ill from swimming in the water. When a beach is closed, signs are posted alerting the public to stay out of the water.
  • Rain Advisories can be issued when it rains because it is known from past experience that rainwater carries pollution to the beach. After a rainstorm, bacteria levels usually exceed the State standards for recreational water use due to untreated storm drain flows that may contact motor oil, pet waste, pesticides, and trash.

It is important to recognize that there is a fundamental difference between beach closures and beach advisories. Beach closures result from known sewage spills or repeated exceedances of standards from unknown sources, whereas beach advisories are a result of an exceedance of standards derived from water testing results.

In 2011, California adopted Senate Bill 482 Beach Safety Program. This basically took the responsibility of AB411 activities off of the CA Department of Public Health and made the State Water Resources Control Board responsible for implementation.

For 2013, NRDC ranked California 11th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states). 9% of samples exceeded EPA's new Beach Action Value (BAV) standards for designated beach areas .

California has more than 430 beaches along more than 700 miles of coastline on the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. Historically, the California Department of Health Services administered the BEACH Act grant. Starting in 2012, the California State Water Resources Control Board provided $1 million in funding and began administering the state's beach monitoring program. It also administers the BEACH Act grant. Beachgoers can access information about water quality on the state's Is It Safe to Swim in Our Waters? website. However, it's generally more convenient to get beach water quality information from County Health Department websites. See the list and links in the Beach Closures section below.

Beach monitoring requirements in California were established by AB 411 in 1997. Testing under this program began in 1999. A potentially "fatal flaw" in AB 411 is this clause:

"Any duty imposed upon a local public officer or agency pursuant to this section shall be mandatory only during a fiscal year in which the Legislature has appropriated sufficient funds, as determined by the State Director of Health Services, in the annual Budget Act or otherwise for local agencies to cover the costs to those agencies associated with the performance of these duties."

The legislature did not appropriate "sufficient funds" during 2009 to through 2011.

Other Monitoring and Research Programs

National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) has carried out many water quality research projects in California.

Water Quality Challenges and Improvements

Curbing Pollution from Dry-Weather Runoff

In urban areas during dry weather, runoff can occur as a result of landscape irrigation, draining of swimming pools, car washing, and various commercial activities. Along the coast of California, where summers are dry, dry-weather runoff is the most common cause of advisories issued due to elevated bacteria levels. For some parts of Santa Monica Bay, sending dry-weather runoff to sewage treatment plants has improved beachwater quality. In this densely populated area, more than 20 low-flow diversion facilities have been constructed to route dry-weather runoff through sanitary sewage treatment after trash and debris have been screened out. These plants are not able to treat the huge volume of runoff that is generated during storms, but they do have the capacity to treat the relatively smaller volume of dry-weather runoff. Due to these diversion projects and other efforts, water quality has improved at the Santa Monica Canyon monitoring station at Santa Monica State Beach, though challenges remain. At this station, 37% of samples taken from 2006 to 2009 exceeded state standards, but exceedances dropped to 23% in 2010, 22% in 2011, and 10% in 2012.

In 2012, Los Angeles completed the last phase of a $40 million-plus dry-weather runoff diversion project that diverts eight storm drains along the Pacific Coast Highway into a sanitary sewer system and to the Hyperion Treatment Plant.

Same-Day Notification Studies

Currently approved methods for determining levels of fecal indicator bacteria in beachwater depend on growth of bacteria colonies in cultures that take 18 to 96 hours to produce results. Because of this delay, swimmers generally do not know until the at least the next day if the water they swam in was contaminated. The delay also means that beaches may remain closed or posted after water quality has improved.

Fortunately, new technologies that can provide same-day beachwater quality results are now available. During the summer of 2010, a rapid bacterial measurement demonstration project was conducted at nine locations at Huntington State Beach, Newport Beach, and Doheny State Beach, all in Orange County. This demonstration project used quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), a method that targets genetic sequences found in enterococcus bacteria, allowing public health officials to issue the nation's first-ever same-day warnings for poor beachwater quality by noon on the day water samples were collected.

The city of Los Angeles undertook a similar project at several Los Angeles County beaches in the summer of 2011. This study was a cooperative effort among the city's Environmental Monitoring Division, the county's Department of Public Health and Department of Public Works, and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP). Eight sampling stations were included in the project: Inner Cabrillo Beach, Surfrider Beach, Topanga State Beach, Santa Monica Canyon at Santa Monica State Beach, Mothers' Beach, the Ballona Creek outfall at Dockweiler State Beach, Redondo Pier at Redondo Beach, and the Los Angeles River estuary boat launch just north of the Queensway Bridge (this location is not a beach). After reviewing the data from this effort, which showed some disagreement between qPCR results and culture-based results, the project team decided that additional studies needed to be conducted before qPCR results could be used as the basis for same-day water quality notifications at Los Angeles County beaches. Additional studies were completed during the summer of 2012 to help determine the reason for the discrepancies; results have not yet been released.

More on rapid testing demonstration studies in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

Bacterial Pollution Reductions Required in Long Beach

In March 2012, total maximum daily loads (TMDLs)—which are cleanup blueprints for specified waters—were established for bacteria at beaches in Long Beach and in the Los Angeles River estuary, which meets the ocean in Long Beach. These cleanups will reduce fecal contamination of beaches in Long Beach, protecting the health of tens of thousands of beachgoers each year. Once they are completed, it is expected that the average number of days during the swimming season that beachwater exceeds fecal indicator bacteria standards will be reduced to zero. In 2012, samples taken at beaches in Long Beach exceeded the single-sample standard for enterococcus between 6% and 24% of the time.

Predictive Modeling

Researchers at Stanford University and the environmental group Heal the Bay are currently developing statistical models that will predict beachwater quality. Starting with test models for 25 of California's most polluted beaches, the models will utilize the history of fecal indicator bacteria densities and oceanic and atmospheric data such as water temperature, current direction, and wind speed at each beach. At the sites where models provide an adequate assessment of water quality, swimmers will be notified of the beach's water quality status more rapidly than they would if traditional techniques for measuring fecal bacteria were used. The models will also help to assess pollution trends and will identify the environmental variables with the greatest influence on bacteria concentrations. Researchers are now halfway through this two-year project, and the efficacy of the models to predict water quality will be evaluated this summer and fall. More on this.

Trash Pollution

Although not monitored as part of the BEACH Act, trash and debris can heavily affect California beaches. Waste litters the landscape, and much of it ends up in our oceans where it kills marine life, poses navigational hazards, and impacts local economies and human health. Marine debris includes a range of manmade waste, the vast majority of marine debris is plastic.

The California State Water Resources Control Board has developed amendments to statewide water quality control plans (Trash Amendments) to reduce trash pollution at California beaches. The Trash Amendments were finalized in 2015. This policy builds upon experience with the trash clean up plans established in Los Angeles, and it identifies trash as a separate pollutant to be controlled statewide. In its current Strategic Plan, the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) has prioritized activities to reduce the source of marine debris, especially plastic waste. OPC and the Water Board are also beginning to coordinate with CalRecycle to enhance waste management and recycling activities that play an important part in controlling marine litter.


Sampling Practices: Beachwater quality monitoring in California occurs from no later than April 1 until October 31, with most beaches in Southern California and in Santa Cruz, San Mateo, and San Francisco Counties monitored year-round. Statewide, more than 25,000 samples were collected in 2013.

Some counties in California conduct beachwater quality monitoring and issue advisories year-round; these include Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Ventura. Therefore, the data provided in NRDC's analysis for these counties reflects wet weather and winter monitoring at numerous sites affected by urban runoff, which results in additional exceedances and longer postings when compared with most other jurisdictions. Year-round monitoring and posting is a good environmental and public-health practice that increases the level of protection to those who visit beaches where body-contact recreational water use occurs throughout the year.

Individual counties determine sampling locations, but sampling depth and minimum sampling frequency are determined by state law. Most counties sample at more locations and often more frequently than required by state law. Samples are taken in ankle-deep water. Monitoring locations in California are selected on the basis of the number of visitors, the location of storm drains, discharge permit requirements to sample at particular places, and legislative requirements (for instance, legislation requires the monitoring of all beaches with a flowing storm drain and at least 50,000 visitors annually). The vast majority of beach day use in California occurs at monitored beaches.

Samples are usually collected in areas where possible contamination is most likely. In Los Angeles County, for example, sampling points are located where creeks or storm drains enter the surf zone; these are usually permanently posted as being under advisory. Other counties may permanently post outfalls and sample 25 yards up or down the coast from the outfall to predict further impacts to beach bathing areas.

Immediate resampling is often conducted after a bacteria advisory (a posting) is issued in order to lift the posting as soon as possible. States that monitor more frequently after an exceedance is found will tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and lower total closing/advisory days than they would if their sampling frequency did not increase after an exceedance was found.

Closings and Advisories

Standards and Procedures: Local health agencies are responsible for issuing beachwater quality advisories and closures. There are four types of beachwater quality warnings issued: postings, rain advisories, permanent postings, and closings. Postings that warn swimmers about the potential for illness are issued when a water sample fails to meet bacterial standards. Rain advisories warn people to avoid swimming in ocean waters during a rain event and for three days after rainfall ceases. Permanent postings are made at sites where historic data show that the beachwater generally contains elevated bacteria levels. Beach closings are generally issued due to sewage spills or other serious health hazards, but local health officials may also decide to close a beach when more than one standard is exceeded or when exceedances are far in excess of the standards. This is rare, however, and closings generally are issued only when it is suspected that sewage is affecting a beach. Beachgoers can access information about water quality on the California State Water Board's Is It Safe to Swim? website.

California employs a variety of bacterial standards:

  • For total coliform, the single-sample standard is 1,000 cfu/100 ml if the ratio of fecal/total coliform bacteria exceeds 0.1. Otherwise, the single-sample standard for total coliform is 10,000 cfu/100 ml. The total coliform geometric mean standard is 1,000 cfu/100 ml, calculated from at least five equally spaced samples collected in a 30-day period.
  • For fecal coliform, the single-sample standard is 400 cfu/100 ml and the standard for the geometric mean of at least five evenly spaced samples collected in a 30-day period is 200 cfu/100 ml. In some jurisdictions, E. coli is used as a surrogate for fecal coliform; the standard is the same as for fecal coliform.
  • For enterococcus, the single-sample standard is 104 cfu/100 ml and the standard for the geometric mean of at least five equally spaced samples collected in a 30-day period is 35 cfu/100 ml.

Almost all counties monitor for all three organisms (total coliform, fecal coliform, and enterococcus). Some beach management entities, including Los Angeles and Orange Counties and the city of Long Beach, post a beach when the single-sample standard of any one of these three indicators is exceeded. In Marin County, beaches are posted if either the enterococcus or fecal coliform standard is exceeded, but not when only the total coliform standard is exceeded.

In San Francisco County, the single-sample standard for total coliform is 10,000 cfu/100 ml regardless of the ratio of fecal coliform to total coliform, and some beaches require confirmation, either from elevated results at nearby sites, from exceedances of more than one standard, or from resampling, before a beach is posted. Geometric mean standards are sometimes used to keep a beach posted after the single-sample maximum has been exceeded but rarely trigger a posting by themselves. If geometric mean standards are exceeded, the state recommends that additional sanitary surveys, more frequent sampling, and additional related evaluations be conducted. Unless adjacent sampling stations exceed water quality standards, notifications are issued for the portion of the beach that extends 50 yards in either direction of the sampling location where an exceedance is found. After a posting is issued, samples must meet standards for two days before the beach can be reopened.

Since 2003, San Diego County has used a predictive model to trigger beach closings at three south county beaches near the outlet of the Tijuana River. These beaches are Imperial Beach, Coronado Beach, and Silver Strand State Beach. The model assesses the need for closures based on real-time information about ocean currents and other parameters. Use of the model allows the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health to make more accurate and timely notifications to protect the health of beachgoers.

In addition to advisories triggered by indicator exceedances, three-day-long preemptive rain advisories are automatically issued in five counties (Los Angeles, Monterey, Orange, San Diego, and Santa Cruz) when rainfall exceeds predetermined levels, regardless of bacterial monitoring. These general advisories affect all beaches in the county. As a general rule, the Los Angeles County Recreational Waters Program issues a rain advisory when there is 0.1 inch or more of rainfall at the University of Southern California rain gauge, but this varies depending on factors such as how long it has been since the last rainfall, how sporadic the rainfall is, and where it is falling. According to the program, much of the watershed that feeds storm drain flow is in the hills and mountains, where rainfall levels differ from those at the rain gauge. Orange County issues preemptive countywide rain advisories that warn of elevated bacteria levels in the ocean for a period of at least 72 hours after rain events of 0.2 inch or more. San Diego County issues preemptive rain advisories for a period of up to 72 hours after a rain event of 0.2 inch or more.

Preemptive advisories are also issued for reasons other than rain, such as the presence of excessive debris. Finally, preemptive closings are issued when there is a known sewage spill or when sewage is suspected of affecting a beach. Closings are issued immediately upon notification by the agency responsible for the spill.

Source Investigation and Identification

In 1999, AB 538 was enacted, which added section 13178 to the Water Code. It requires the SWRCB to: (1) develop by September 30, 2000, source investigation protocols for use in conducting source investigations of storm drains that produce exceedances of bacteriological standards, and (2) report to the Legislature, by March 31, 2001, on the methods by which the SWRCB intends to conduct source investigations of storm drains that produce exceedances of bacteriological standards. Subsequent legislation, AB 2886 (Chapter 727, Statutes of 2000), extended the date for developing the source investigation protocols to June 30, 2001, and the date for the report to December 1, 2001. This report was produced in response to the requirements of AB 538 and section 13178 of the Water Code. An updated and more comprehensive source investigation manual The California Microbial Source Identification Manual - A Tiered Approach to Identifying Fecal Pollution Sources to Beaches was produced in December 2013. This document provides guidance for cost-effectively identifying sources of fecal contamination within a watershed. The manual is based on a hypothesis-driven and tiered approach, in which the user implements the least expensive options first and more expensive tools only when sufficient uncertainty warrants their use. The guidance manual utilizes current molecular technologies to help identify human and animal sources of fecal indicator bacteria.

The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board is now requiring municipal entities within their jurisdiction to prepare Water Quality Improvement Plans (WQIPs) as part of their Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit renewals. The WQIPs frequently contain a Source Investigation and Identification Program.

Water Quality Contact

Michael W. Gjerde
Ocean Plan, Beach and Shellfish Standards
CA State Water Resources Control Board
Ocean Unit, Division of Water Quality
Phone (916) 341-5283
Fax (916) 341-5284

Beach Closures

Assembly Bill 1946 requires the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to post monthly beach data from coastal counties throughout the state. The surveys list beach warnings, beach closures, and rain advisories resulting from bacterial contamination. At the end of each month, surveys are updated to reflect the most current monthly health information, collected from county health officers. At the end of June, the board compiles all data into an annual report. These monthly and annual reports are posted in Adobe Acrobat format on the SWRCB Beach Surveys, Closures, and Rain Advisories website.

AB411 requires that a conspicuous warning sign be posted at beaches when a single weekly sample shows that any of three indicator organisms are present above state standards. Closings and advisories are issued on a discretionary basis. Beach hotlines for some California counties are as follows:

  • Los Angeles and Long Beach (562) 570-4199
  • Marin (415) 473-2335
  • Mendocino (707) 234-6627
  • Monterey (800) 347-6363
  • Orange (714) 433-6400
  • San Diego (619) 338-2073
  • San Luis Obispo (805) 781-5544
  • Santa Barbara (805) 681-4949
  • Santa Cruz (831) 454-3188
  • San Francisco (877) 732-3224
  • Sonoma (707) 565-6552
  • Ventura (805) 662-6555

County websites with water quality data and closures, postings, and advisories are as follows:

A new State Water Resources Control Board website, Safe to Swim is a statewide portal that allows you to zoom in on county and beach-specific information. The site is intended to allow beachgoers to answer the questions:

  • Can I swim at my beach, lake, or stream?
  • How clean was my beach, lake, or stream during the past week or month?
  • What are the long-term trends at my beach, lake, or stream?
  • Which beaches, lakes, and streams are currently closed by county health agencies?
  • Which beaches, lakes, and streams are listed by the State as impaired?
  • Are the problems getting better?

A more user-friendly way to determine the latest water quality status of beaches in California is the Swim Guide, a new, free, smart phone app (available from App Store, Google Play, or The Swim Guide utilizes water quality monitoring data from government authorities to determine the water quality at over 300 beaches in California and is updated as frequently as the information is gathered. Provided, and managed, by member groups within the Waterkeeper Alliance, a network of 200 water protection groups worldwide, the Swim Guide helps the user locate the closest, cleanest beach, get directions, view photos, and determine if the water is safe for swimming. The Swim Guide also allows the user to share the whole adventure with your friends and family on your social networks. The guide also allows users to report pollution immediately to their local Waterkeeper. It should be noted that the Swim Guide's "red" designation ("currently not open for swimming") can mean either a high bacteria reading (shown on most county beach monitoring websites as yellow, with a health advisory warning) or a beach closure due to a sewage spill.

The website for the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS) also has some bacteriological beach monitoring data, as well as a wealth of other coastal data.

Following is a north-to-south county-by-country discussion for the year 2016 from Heal the Bay's 2016-2017 Beach Report Card.

Del Norte County

  • There is only one beach regularly monitored in Del Norte County: Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City.
  • Consistent with years past, this site received A grades for both dry and wet weather.
  • Del Norte County received the most rain from April 2016 – March 2017 of all California coastal counties, totaling 86.55 inches.

Sewage Spill Summary

  • There was only one reported sewage spill in Del Norte County, totaling 2,700 gallons. That full volume of sewage reached a surface waterbody, but resulted in no health warnings.
  • Very similarly, there was also only one reported spill from 2015-16.

For additional water quality information: County of Del Norte Environmental Health Division

Humboldt County

  • Summer dry weather grades were mixed, with three of five sites receiving A grades, while two sites netted D and F grades, earning them each a spot on the “Beach Bummer” list.
  • Clam Beach moved up to the #1 spot on the “Beach Bummer” list this year.
  • Luffenholtz Beach also earned a “bummer” title, ranking in at the #8 spot.
  • Summer wet weather grades also varied by location, with 60% of sites (three locations) earning A or B grades.


  • Humboldt County only samples during the summer (AB411 season).
  • This is Clam Beach’s fourth year on the “Beach Bummer” list.
  • The county saw a large amount of rain from April 2016 – March 2017, totaling 58.46 inches.

Sewage Spill Summary

  • There were 15 reported sewage spills totaling about 110,000 gallons in Humboldt County. Almost the entire volume that was spilled reached a surface waterbody.
  • These spills resulted in one health warning.
  • For comparison, there were eight reported spills in 2015-16, with only approximately 3,000 gallons reaching a surface waterbody.

For Additional Water Quality Information:
Humboldt County Department of Health & Human Services

Mendocino County

  • Summer dry weather grades were perfect with all six of the sites sampled earning A grades.
  • Wet weather grades were based on about 6 wet weather samples per location. Only one site earned less than an A grade, which was Caspar Beach at Caspar Creek


  • Mendocino County only samples during the summer (AB411 season).
  • These summer dry and wet weather grades mark an improvement over the five-year average.
  • The county received an incredibly large amount of rain from April 2016 – March 2017, totaling 60.24 inches.

Sewage Spill Summary

  • There was one reported sewage spill in Mendocino County, totaling about 258 gallons.
  • Only 50 of those gallons reached a surface waterbody, resulting in no health warnings.
  • Very similarly, there was also only one reported sewage spill in 2015-16, of which approximately 200 gallons reaching a surface waterbody.

For additional water quality information:
Mendocino County Environmental Health
Hotline (707) 234-6627

Sonoma County

  • Summer dry weather grades were perfect with 100% of locations receiving A grades.
  • Wet weather samples taken during those summer months also earned great marks with 100% of sites scoring A or B grades.

Further Insight:

  • Sonoma County only samples during the summer (AB411 season).
  • There were seven wet weather samples collected at each site last summer, a larger summer wet weather pool of data than most other summer-only counties.


  • Rainfall totaled a massive 57.35” from April 2016 – March 2017.
  • This doubles county averages from the last 5-10 years.
  • This volume of rain was also notably higher than the 31.49” average for the county from 1961-1990.

Sewage Spill Summary

  • There were 64 reported sewage spills totaling about 2.7 million gallons.
  • Almost the whole volume that was spilled reached a surface waterbody.
  • These spills caused 50 individual health warnings.
  • Sonoma ranks 3rd in terms of number of reported sewage spills among the coastal counties over the last year.
  • For a remarkable comparison, there were only five reported spills from 2015-16 in Sonoma County, with approximately 200,000 gallons reaching a surface waterbody.

For Additional Water Quality Information:
Sonoma County Department of Environmental Health

Marin County

  • Marin County only samples during the summer (AB411 season).
  • Summer dry weather grades were perfect with 100% of locations scoring A grades.
  • Wet weather samples taken during those summer months did not fare as well, dipping to 74% of locations receiving A or B grades compared to 91% on average over the last five years.

Sewage Spill Summary

  • There were 36 reported sewage spills totaling about 175,000 gallons.
  • Almost the whole volume that was spilled reached a surface waterbody.
  • These spills caused 11 individual health warnings.
  • Over the past year Marin had the 5th highest number of reported sewage spills among the coastal counties.
  • To compare, there were 19 spills from 2015-16, with approximately 102,342 gallons reaching a surface waterbody.

For additional information, see Marin County beach monitoring program.

San Francisco County

  • Through partnership with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, San Francisco maintains regular year-round sampling at 15 locations.
  • Beaches earned amazing grades during summer dry weather, with 100% earning A or B grades, a 13% increase from the five-year average.
  • Winter dry weather grades were on par with the five-year average at 73% of locations scoring A or B grades.
  • Wet weather grades in San Francisco could improve with 60% of beaches receiving A or B grades.
  • San Francisco had one location drop off the “Beach Bummer” list from last year: Candlestick Point at Sunnydale Cove received an A summer dry grade.

Further Insight:

  • Winter dry weather grades improved from last year’s scores of 60% A or B grades to 73%.
  • Wet weather grades also saw an improvement from last year, up from 40% A or B grades to 60% this year.


  • Rainfall totaled 31.34” from April 2016 – March 2017.
  • This far surpassed county averages of 17-20” over the last 5-10 years.
  • Rainfall this year was also notably higher than the 23.64” average for the county from 1981-2010.

Combined Sewer Discharge Notes:

  • City and County of San Francisco have a unique stormwater infrastructure that occurs in no other California coastal county – a combined sewer and storm drain system (CSS).
  • As a result, the shoreline has no flowing storm drains in dry weather, but during heavy rain events, the CSS occasionally discharges combined wastewater, which is typically comprised of 94% treated stormwater and 6% primary treated sanitary flow.
  • This past year, San Francisco had 31 combined sewer discharges, which led to a total of 56 beach advisories.

For Additional Water Quality Information:
San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

San Mateo County

  • Summer dry weather grades were great last year, with 90% of beaches earning A or B grades.
  • San Mateo beaches also received high marks during winter dry weather, with 95% scoring A or B grades.
  • Wet weather grades were a different story, with 73% of sampling locations earning a C to F grade.
  • San Mateo earned one spot on the “Beach Bummer” list this year:
  • Lakeshore Park, Marina Lagoon at No. 4

Further Insight:

  • Wet weather grades dipped below last year’s and well below the five-year average.
  • Very poor wet weather grades illustrate why California coastal health departments recommend swimmers stay out of the water for a minimum of three days following a rain event of at least 0.1 inches.


  • Rainfall totaled a whopping 49.94” from April 2016 – March 2017.
  • This was an incredibly heavy year of rain, doubling county averages from the last 5-10 years.
  • The total also far surpassed the 31.36” average for the county from 1981-2010.

Sewage Spill Summary

  • There were 52 reported sewage spills totaling about 2.3 million gallons.
  • Of this, about 1.8 million gallons reached a surface waterbody.
  • These spills resulted in 17 individual health warnings.
  • Of these spills, 19 were “major,” 18 were “minor” and 15 were “small.”
  • San Mateo had some of the highest reported sewage spills by both number and volume.

Additional Water Quality Information:
County of San Mateo Environmental Health Department

Santa Cruz County

  • Beaches in Santa Cruz County performed well during summer dry weather with 85% receiving A or B grades.
  • Winter dry weather grades performed better than those in summer, with 92% of beaches receiving A or B grades– as is standard for Santa Cruz, but unique in California.
  • Wet weather grades were poor with 54% of sites receiving C to F grades.
  • Santa Cruz had two locations on the “Beach Bummer” list:
  • Cowell Beach, West of the Wharf at No. 3
  • Capitola Beach at No. 7

Further Insights:

  • Santa Cruz County will be partnering with Heal the Bay for the 2017 summer season by participating in their predictive modeling program. Heal the Bay’s NowCast system will provide daily water quality public notifications for Cowell Beach.
  • Surfrider Foundation's Santa Cruz Chapter has a Clean Up Cowell's campaign that is working to get Cowell’s beach off the Beach Bummer list and get it back to being a healthy beach for residents and tourists alike to enjoy. More info.


  • Rainfall totaled a whopping 49.94” from April 2016 – March 2017.
  • This was an incredibly heavy year of rain, doubling county averages from the last 5-10 years.
  • The total also far surpassed the 31.36” average for the county from 1981-2010.

Sewage Spill Summary

  • There were seven reported sewage spills totaling about 37,000 gallons.
  • Almost the whole volume that was spilled reached a surface waterbody.
  • These spills resulted in only one individual health warning.
  • One of these spills was “major,” one was “minor” and five were “small.”
  • For comparison, last year there were 11 reported spills with approximately 5,000 gallons reaching a surface waterbody.

For more water quality information:
County of Santa Cruz Environmental Health Services

Monterey County

  • Monterey County samples regularly during the summer (AB411 season) and only once per month during the winter dry season.
  • Of the eight sites monitored, 100% of them received an A grade in summer dry weather.
  • All sites also technically received an A grade for summer wet weather, however those A grades are only based on one wet weather sample per location.
  • Both summer dry and wet weather grades were above their respective five-year averages.


  • Rainfall totaled 26.10” from April 2016 – March 2017.
  • This was a very heavy year of rain in comparison to the 14-16” rainfall average for the county over the last 5-10 years.
  • The total rainfall this year was notably even higher than the 21.16” average for the county from 1981-2010.

Sewage Spill Summary

  • There were 16 reported sewage spills totaling about 820,000 gallons.
  • From these spills, approximately 516,000 gallons reached a surface waterbody.
  • These spills resulted in four individual health warnings.
  • Three of these spills were “major,” five were “minor” and eight were “small.”
  • To compare, last year there were seven reported spills with approximately 221,000 gallons reaching a surface waterbody.

For more water quality information:
Monterey County Health Department

San Luis Obispo County

  • Summer dry weather grades were excellent in San Louis Obispo with 100% of sampling locations earning an A or B grade.
  • Winter dry weather results were also excellent with 100% of beaches receiving A grades.
  • Wet weather grades, though lower on average than dry weather, were much higher than the average for the State and were on-par with the five-year average for the County.


  • San Luis Obispo had one beach bummer drop off the list from last year: Pismo Beach Pier, scored a B grade for the 2016 summer dry season.
  • Construction is currently underway at Pismo Pier to rehabilitate and repair the 1924 structure.


  • Rainfall volumes in San Luis Obispo County ranged from 18.96” to 27.48” depending on the rain gauge used for analysis (MQO and CAPS respectively).
  • This was a very heavy year of rain in comparison to the 7-11” average for the county over the last 5-10 years.
  • Although rainfall was higher at the CAPS rain gauge this year, the total of both rain stations was within range of the 19.41” average for the county from 1981-2010.

Sewage Spill Summary

  • There were 10 reported sewage spills totaling about 105,000 gallons.
  • Almost the whole volume spilled reached a surface waterbody.
  • These spills resulted in two individual health warnings.
  • Three of these spills were “major,” four were “minor” and three were “small.”
  • To compare, last year there were seven reported spills with approximately 8,000 gallons reaching a surface waterbody.

For more water quality information:
San Luis Obispo County Environmental Health Services

Santa Barbara County

  • Unfortunately, lab errors for a large portion of the summer season resulted in too few reliable samples for beaches in Santa Barbara County to receive summer dry grades.
  • Winter dry weather grades were excellent with 93% of locations scoring A and B marks.
  • Wet weather grades were extremely poor with 80% of locations (12 sites) receiving C – F grades.

Further Insight:

  • Santa Barbara has two beaches that are a part of the NowCast program, which receive daily predictions from April through October:
  • Arroyo Burro Beach
  • East Beach


  • Rainfall volumes in Santa Barbara County ranged from 17.68” to 24.26” depending on the rain gauge used for analysis (SMX and SBA respectively).
  • This was a heavy rain year for the county in comparison to the 10-14” average over the last 5-10 years.
  • Although rainfall was higher at the SBA rain gauge this year, the total of both rain stations was within range of the 19.41” average for the county from 1981-2010.

Sewage Spill Summary

  • There were seven reported sewage spills in Santa Barbara County, totaling about 5,000 gallons.
  • About half of the volume spilled reached a surface waterbody.
  • These spills resulted in no individual health warnings.
  • Of these spills, two were “minor” and five were “small.”
  • To compare, last year there were three reported spills with approximately 85,880 gallons reaching a surface waterbody.

Additional water quality information:
County of Santa Barbara Environmental Health Agency

Ventura County

  • Ventura earned 100% A grades during summer dry weather for the 9th consecutive year.
  • Ventura beaches also earned great grades during winter dry weather with only one beach not earning an A or B grade - Harbor Beach Park at the South end of Victoria Avenue earned a D grade.
  • Wet weather water quality was again well above average, with 80% of the 40 sites earning A or B grades.

Further Insight

  • 40 locations were monitored weekly from April - October 2016 and 19 locations year-round.
  • Ventura County’s online sample data and lab reports regularly had value discrepancies. These were related to quality control issues.


  • Rainfall volumes in Ventura County spanned from 19.81” to 20.70” depending on the rain gauge used for analysis (OXR and VTU respectively).
  • A small portion of this volume fell during summer months, but most of the rainfall (about 18”) occurred during the winter season.

Sewage Spill Summary

  • Ventura County only had one reported sewage spill according to SWRCB records, totaling about 17,000 gallons.
  • About 16,000 gallons from this spill reached a surface waterbody, resulting in a health warning. This event ranked as a “major” spill.

For additional water quality information:
County of Ventura Environmental Health Division

Los Angeles County

  • Los Angeles County had another banner year of summer dry weather grades with 96% of sites receiving A and B grades.
  • Winter dry weather grades were on par with the five-year average, with 87% of locations scoring A and B grades.
  • Wet weather grades continue to be an issue in Los Angeles, with only 39% of beaches managing to earn an A or B grade.
  • Two bummers in Los Angeles that have been of historic concern made the list again this year (though lower on the list than in years past):
  • Santa Monica Pier at the No. 6 spot
  • Mother’s Beach (between the tower and dock), Marina del Rey at No. 9

Further Insight:

  • Los Angeles had one beach bummer drop off the list from last year: Redondo Pier (100 yards south). This site has been added to the NowCast program for summer 2017 and will receive daily water quality predictions from May through October.
  • More beaches (41) earned an F in wet weather in Los Angeles than any other county.
  • Very poor wet weather grades illustrate why California coastal health departments recommend swimmers stay out of the water for a minimum of three days following a rain event of at least 0.1 inches.


  • Rainfall in Los Angeles (at LAX) totaled 16.7” from April 2016 – March 2017, while rainfall in Long Beach totaled 19.47” during that same time period.
  • This was a heavy rain year for Los Angeles County in comparison to the 7-9” average for the county over the last 5-10 years.
  • Yet, the total rain volume in Los Angeles County did not exceed the 18.67” average from 1981-2010.

Sewage Spill Summary

  • Los Angeles had the largest number of reported sewage spills at 108 individual events.
  • These reported spills totaled about 3.3 million gallons.
  • From these sewage spills, about 2.3 million gallons reached a surface waterbody.
  • These spills resulted in three individual health warnings.
  • Of these spills, 16 were “major,” 41 were “minor” and 51 were “small.”

For more water quality information:
Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Environmental Health

Los Angeles County/Long Beach

  • Long Beach had great summer dry weather water quality again last year, with 92% of the sites having A or B marks.
  • Winter dry weather grades dipped to only 62% of sites receiving A or B marks.
  • Wet weather resulted in F grades across the board in Long Beach.

Further Insight:

  • Long Beach is situated between two of the largest rivers in Los Angeles County (the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers), which likely contributes heavily to its poor wet weather grades.
  • Sampling at Colorado Lagoon ceased in September 2016 due to dredging activities associated with a new restoration project.

For additional water quality information:
Long Beach Recreational Water Samples

Orange County

  • Orange County had another great year of summer dry weather grades with 97% of sites scoring A and B grades.
  • Beaches also performed well overall in the county during winter dry weather, with 93% of locations receiving A and B grades.
  • Wet weather grades took a large hit in Orange County over the last year with only 44% of beaches earning A or B grades.
  • Two beach bummers were on the list this year in Orange County:
  • San Clemente Pier in the No. 2 spot
  • Monarch Beach, North Salt Creek in the No. 10 spot

Further Insight:

  • Orange County had one location that scored an F grade for the summer season: Abalone Ave. Beach on Balboa Island in Newport Bay.
  • Local agency officials believe the exceedances are related to 1) an abandoned small craft just offshore last year that was a roosting spot for birds and 2) waste from pets frequenting the beach.
  • Very poor wet weather grades illustrate why California coastal health departments recommend swimmers stay out of the water for a minimum of three days following a rain event of at least 0.1 inches.


  • Rainfall in Orange County totaled 15.82” from April 2016 – March 2017.
  • Given that the average rainfall over the past 5-10 years was between 5-8”, this past rainy season felt like a deluge.
  • However, total rainfall volume over the last year was not that different than the 13.6” average for the county (1981-2010).

Sewage Spill Summary

  • There were 18 reported sewage spills in Orange County last year totaling 115,723 gallons.
  • From these sewage spills about 109,000 gallons reached a surface waterbody.
  • Of these spills, two were “major,” four were “minor” and 12 were “small.”
  • These spills resulted in three individual beach closures.

In June 2017 Orange County Health Care Agency published a 2016 Annual Ocean Harbor and Bay Water Quality Report. The report's major findings were as follows:

  • The total number of sewage spills reported to the Ocean Water Protection Program in 2016 was 129, continuing a steady decline and down 68.3% from the peak record of 408 spills set in 2002.
  • During 2016, the total number of sewage spills resulting in beach closures (9) remained 52.6% below the 30-year average of 19 beach closures per year.
  • The total number of Beach Mile Days (BMD’s) due to sewage spill closures was 14.0 and is 33% below the 18-year average of 27.4 BMD’s from 1999 through 2016.
  • Pipeline blockages continue to be responsible for the majority of sewage spills resulting in beach closures. Since 1999, blockages have resulted in 61.5% of all closures and over half of these blockages (56.2%) were caused by infiltration of roots or deposition of grease.

Posted Warnings Due to Bacteriological Standards Violations

  • Total Beach Mile Days posted due to bacteriological water quality standards violations during the AB 411 period (April 1 to October 31) were 29.1 which is 92% below the record high of 366 recorded in 2002. The continuing trend of record lows over the last 4 years is likely due to drought and less runoff impacting the beach.
  • The new South County Unified Regional Monitoring Plan completed its second AB 411 monitoring season (April 1 to October 31). This new regional monitoring plan was implemented at south county beaches in April 2015 and requires “point zero” monitoring at locations where urban runoff physically enters the ocean. Second year monitoring results during the AB 411 period showed 15 out of the 28 point zero stations were in 100% compliance with state ocean water health standards.
  • During the summer of 2016, HCA/Environmental Health continued collaborating with Stanford University and Heal the Bay on a Predictive Modeling pilot study. One of the three chosen pilot locations in Southern California was at San Juan Creek in Doheny State Beach. The pilot used a computer model to determine if water quality at selected beach locations would exceed state health standards on any given day to determine if the beach should be posted. A continuation of the pilot study is planned for the 2017 AB 411 period.
  • Thirteen (13) Rain Advisories were posted during 2016 for a total of 51 days and represents a 25% increase over the previous 3-year’s drought-impacted average of 38 days. The current number is still 18% below the (pre-drought) average of 62 days and may continue to contribute to better water quality due to less urban runoff flowing to the ocean.

For more water quality information:
County of Orange Environmental Health Division

San Diego County

  • Summer dry weather grades were excellent with 97% of sites receiving A and B grades.
  • Beaches performed well on average during the winter dry period with 83% scoring A and B grades. However, the 83% A and B grades marked a dip in water quality to the five-year average of 95%.
  • Wet weather grades took a hit and dropped from the five-year average of 81% to only 68% of locations receiving A and B grades.
  • San Diego had one Beach Bummer during the summer 2016 season:
  • La Jolla Cove in the No. 5 spot.

Further Insight:

  • Winter dry weather grades can reflect poor water quality longer than the 72-hour period that is recommended to avoid water contact following a significant rain event.
  • Heal the Bay recommends that the 72-hour rule be used by the public as a minimum timeframe to stay out of the water for health protection.
  • Moonlight Beach in the City of Encinitas will be included in the 2017 NowCasting program, receiving daily water quality predictions from June through October.
  • Moving off last summer’s beach bummer list, water quality improved at Shoreline Beach Park, Shelter Island this past summer season with a B grade.


  • This was a heavy rain year in San Diego in comparison to the 7-8” average rainfall for the county over the last 5-10 years.
  • Rainfall volumes across San Diego spanned from 12.73” to 17.93” depending on the rain gauge used for analysis (DEMX, SAN and NFG). Depending on the gauge, this was either in line with or quite a few inches over the 10.4” average for the county from 1981-2010.

Sewage Spill Summary

  • There were 28 reported sewage spills for the county, totaling about 1.6 million gallons. Of these spills, eight were “major,” ten were “minor” and the final ten were “small.” From these sewage spills about 1.2 million gallons reached a surface waterbody.
  • This year, contaminated runoff from the Tijuana River resulted in 21 separate closure events with different distances and durations.

For additional Water Quality Information:
County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health (DEH)

Storm Drains and Sewage Outfalls

Although the State of California has no centralized collection of information on the location of coastal wastewater treatment plants and sewage outfalls that discharge to the ocean, the environmental group Heal The Ocean (Santa Barbara, CA) compiled this information in a report California Ocean Wastewater Discharge Inventory, March 2010. The report is accompanied by interactive mapping to tally all wastewater discharged into the Pacific Ocean by the State of California, from the Oregon border to San Diego/Tijuana. Included are permits, amounts, and types of discharge, and a discussion of recycled water as a means of conserving water and preventing ocean pollution. An interactive website constructed by David Greenberg, PhD, of the Marine Science Institute, UCSB, shows latitude & longitude of outfalls, outfall relationship to 303(d) impaired beaches, areas of special biological significance, and marine sanctuaries.

Key points from the report include:

  • In California, 43 wastewater treatment facilities discharge approximately 1.35 billion gallons daily (~1.5 million acre feet per year (AFY)) of treated effluent directly into the Pacific Ocean.
  • These facilities reclaim or divert for reclamation only approximately 312 million gallons daily (MGD) (~ 200,480 AFY) for beneficial reuse. Based on the volume discharged daily by the 43 facilities, about four times more than this amount could be reclaimed.
  • Increasing reclaimed water for reuse would decrease the demand on locally available water as well as dependence on imported supplies, reduce (or in some cases eliminate) ocean discharges, and reduce the stress on the environment that is caused by diversion of water from its natural flows.

The report's recommendations are:

  • Improve and upgrade existing wastewater treatment plants
  • Increase the use of reclaimed water as a more economic alternative to potable water for non-potable uses
  • Make public education and consumer awareness a priority
  • Support and increase efforts to prevent pollution at source
  • Revise legislation and regulation as soon as possible to overcome barriers to use
  • Support and expand collaborative planning and research
  • Provide government support and funding mechanisms
  • Revise the reporting protocols of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) and attendant regional boards

In 2007, San Francisco had almost 2,000 sewer spills contributing 12 million gallons of raw sewage streets and creeks, according to San Francisco Baykeeper. Much of that flows straight into the San Francisco Bay. It's an amount 240 times greater than the oil spilled by the Cosco Busan in 2007. Most of the spillage comes from aging pipes that are often caked with grease, and marred with cracks and gaping holes. It's part of an infrastructure that in some places is 50 to 100 years old. According to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Bay Area has a sewage spill rate that's more than double the statewide average. Read here for historical details on San Francisco's sewer and storm drain systems. Here's a more recent article.

In Los Angeles, the Bureau of Sanitation has reduced the number of sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) by 80% since the baseline fiscal year (FY) of 2000/2001, reaching another record low number of SSOs in 2009/2010. The City of Los Angeles wastewater collection system is operated and maintained by the Department of Public Works, Bureau of Sanitation (BOS). There were 687 recorded SSOs in 2000/2001, 444 in 2003/2004, 200 in FY 2007/2008, 159 in FY 2008/2009, and 139 in FY 2009/10. The reduction in SSOs is believed to be a direct result of the implementation of proactive programs by the Bureau, including enhanced and increased sewer cleaning and inspection; expansion of the Fats, Oils and Grease (FOG) control program; a focused tree root control program and improved sewer planning and renewal.

Online, searchable Google map information is now available from the State Water Resources Control Board showing sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) statewide.

Until 2002, Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) was the largest agency in the nation using a Clean Water Act Section 301(h) waiver to avoid treating their municipal wastewater to secondary treatment standards. A tremendous groundswell of pressure from Surfrider activists, other environmental groups, and the citizens of Orange County resulted in the Board of Directors of OCSD voting in July 2002 to drop their waiver and proceed with the planning, design, and construction of facilities necessary to achieve full secondary treatment. It should also be noted that a large percentage of Orange County's wastewater that is going through the secondary treatment process is now being further treated by microfiltration, reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation in Orange County Water District's award winning Groundwater Replenishment System (GRS). GRS went on-line in 2008, producing 70 million gallons per day (MGD) of high quality potable water. GRS has been so successful that it was expanded to produce 100 MGD, and is currently being expanded to produce 130 MGD. The upgrade to full secondary treatment was essentially complete in mid-2011 and was officially deemed complete in 2012.

With the end of OCSD's waiver, the city of San Diego earned the distinction of being the largest sewage agency in the country with a 301(h) waiver. Their Point Loma Treatment Plant only treats their sewage using "advanced primary" treatment. In 2009 they were granted another 5-year waiver, largely because of intensive ocean monitoring by scientists at Scripps Institute of Oceanography that indicated no significant ecological effects from the ocean discharge. Environmental groups including Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Coastkeeper and Sierra Club have aggressively pushed the city to implement more wastewater recycling from the North City Water Reclamation Plant and other locations as a way of lessening wastewater discharges to the ocean. As a result, the city is now embarking on a Pure Water San Diego program that will produce 83 MGD of high quality potable water and significantly reduce ocean discharges. The Pure Water program was approved by the San Diego City Council in November 2014.

Runoff from Tijuana River

San Diego's southern beaches have also historically suffered from discharges of raw sewage from Tijuana, Mexico, especially at Imperial Beach. In 1998, Imperial Beach was closed on 161 days. In 1999, beachgoers enjoyed an eight-month-long closure-free season for the first time in over 20 years, which at the time was attributed to the new International Wastewater Treatment Plant (IWTP). This plant is also utilizing only advanced primary treatment, although EPA and the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) are working to expand the facility to provide full secondary treatment. When this occurs, San Diego's plant will be in the embarrassing position of providing less treatment than Tijuana's plant. Although, to be fair, it should be noted that operation of IWTP has been less than reliable and that the discharge of San Diego's partially-treated sewage has had little demonstrated human health or ecological impact. Additionally, a substantial amount of sewage in Tijuana has historically never made it to the treatment plant and is instead discharged directly to the Tijuana River. This problem becomes acute during periods of heavy rain, such as occurred during the 2004-2005 winter when beaches from the border north through Imperial Beach and often extending into Coronado were closed for an extended period. More info. This situation again occurred during the 2016-2017 winter, when at least 143 gallons of sewage was spilled over a 17-day period. There were indications that the spill volume could have been as much as 230 million gallons. The situation was made worse by the fact that there was no public notification of the spill until several days after it began. The Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS) has developed a sewage plume tracking model that uses data from Tijuana River flows and ocean currents to predict where the Tijuana River plume may be impacting the coast. The output from this model is updated hourly.

In April 2010 the San Diego Union Tribune reported that with the opening of the La Morita sewage treatment plant in Tijuana, the region will soon treat 90 percent of its wastewater. The facility will treat up to 20 percent of the incoming flow for use in irrigation. The treated water will also irrigate a soccer field and public plaza next to the plant. With the opening of another facility scheduled for the end of 2010, officials predicted the region would treat 100 percent of its sewage, a first in Mexico. Alas, as noted above, this has not proved to be the case. In March 2017 an article was published in the San Diego Union Tribune which outlined Tijuana's plans for sewer collection, treatment and recycling to address the chronic sewer spills. Here is a list of known transboundary sewer spills just from October 2016 to May 2017, including the horrendous 143 million gallon spill during January-February 2017.

In an effort to resolve the controversy over how to address the serious sewage discharge problems at the Mexico/U.S. border, a report was prepared in May 2007 for the San Diego Foundation titled Toward a Long-Term Solution for the San Diego-Tijuana Sewage Crisis: Reviving the Process and Moving beyond the Bajagua Debate. The report's recommendations are:

  • Reform the Commission or Create Regional Governmental Institution with Long-Term Environmental Planning as Mission
  • Increase Non-Governmental Organizational Capacity Dealing with Major Regional Environmental Problems
  • Establish Ad Hoc Committee to Identify Today’s Best Treatment Option
  • Issue Regular Updates on Treatment Option’s Progress
  • Modify Court-Ordered Deadline at Earliest Opportunity
  • Acknowledge Bajagua Project’s Limitations; Acknowledge Project’s Benefits; Embrace Project’s Goals and Demand Prompt Achievement

In May 2008, the IBWC announced a decision to upgrade their wastewater treatment plant in San Ysidro to better handle sewage from Tijuana instead of paying a developer (Bajagua) to build and operate a larger facility in Mexico.

A mechanical breakdown and construction work at some U.S. sewage facilities allowed more than 2.1 million gallons of wastewater from Mexico to flood the Tijuana River Valley in San Diego County in June 2010. Unlike most other spills of that size, it prompted little enforcement action by water-quality regulators and no cleanup. Until the 2017 sewer spill noted above, the incident ranked as one of the county’s largest sewage-related accidents in the past decade, and one that typically would prompt hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties if it was caused by an agency in the United States. A top regulator at the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board stated that he didn't plan to issue fines because the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission is exempt from them under the principle of sovereign immunity.

Surfrider Foundation's San Diego County Chapter and other environmental and civic groups have launched a No B.S. (border sewage) campaign to address the environmental issues affecting the beaches of the border region.

The sewage treatment plant in Morro Bay also has a 301(h) waiver, but this was removed and a timetable for upgrade to at least full secondary treatment standards established in 2007. Implementation, however, has been a very rocky and controversial road. An article published in on February 16, 2011, details some of the political intrigue surrounding this project. Here are details on the project from the City of Morro Bay's website.

Another large sewage treatment plant that has upgraded to full secondary treatment is the City of Los Angeles' Hyperion treatment plant. This upgrade, completed in 1999, reduced sewage sludge discharges to Santa Monica Bay by 90%.

The Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) is a multi-agency joint powers organization for water quality research. Their website has a wealth of information pertaining to sewage outfalls and storm drain runoff. They publish locations and emissions data for the wastewater treatment facilities in Southern California. The following text is from the abstract of the technical paper How effective has the Clean Water Act been at reducing pollutant mass emissions to the Southern California Bight over the past 35 years? which appeared in the SCCWRP 2007 Annual Report.

The federal Clean Water Act (CWA) has regulated discharges of contaminants since 1972. Most of the effort over the past 35 years has focused on controlling point source discharges, although recent attention has shifted to address management of nonpoint sources. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent nationally to implement CWA requirements; however, regional evaluations of the effectiveness of the CWA at improving water quality are lacking. This is primarily due to the fact that monitoring programs mandated by the CWA do not require integration of data from multiple dischargers or classes of dischargers to assess cumulative effects. A rare opportunity exists in southern California to assess CWA effectiveness by integrating mass emissions data from all major sources of contaminants to the Southern California Bight (SCB) from 1971 to 2000. Sources of contaminants to the SCB include large and small publicly owned treatment works (POTWs), power generating stations, industrial facilities, oil platforms, dredged material, and storm water runoff from a watershed area of over 14,000 km2. While the coastal population grew by 56% and total effluent volume increased 31% since 1971, mass emissions of nearly all constituents decreased since passage of the CWA, most by greater than 65%. The median decrease in metals emissions was 88%, while total DDT and PCB emissions each decreased by three orders of magnitude. Large POTWs were the dominant point source of many contaminants to the SCB, accounting for more than 50% of the total annual discharge volume. However, large POTWs also accounted for the most significant reductions in pollutant discharge to the SCB, with most pollutant loads being reduced by greater than 90% compared to pre-CWA levels. As point source treatment has improved, the relative contribution of non-point sources, such as storm water runoff has increased. For example, metals contributions from storm water have increased from 6% of the total to 34% of the total annual load between 1971 and 2000. Despite the increased importance of storm water discharges, regional monitoring and data compilation of this source is lacking, making it difficult to accurately assess trends in non-point source discharge. Future efforts to integrate data from storm water monitoring programs and include dry weather runoff monitoring should improve the accuracy of regional mass emission estimates.

A more recent and user-friendly report from SCCWRP is Forty Years after the Clean Water Act - A Retrospective Look at the Southern California Coastal Ocean (2012).

Current SCCWRP Annual Report and previous Annual Reports.

"No Dumping" sign on a storm drain in Oceanside, CA

In Orange County, a Grand Jury report on urban runoff estimated the total dry weather flow to the ocean in the county to be approximately 100 million gallons per day (MGD). Other estimates place this flow at close to 50-60 MGD.[1]

Septic Systems

Rincon Point

Septic tank systems are used to treat sewage in many rural areas in California, as well as in certain high-profile beach communities (and surfing areas) such as Malibu and Rincon. Years of concerns about pollution from the use of septic tanks at Rincon was resolved in 2007 with the local homeowners voting to connect to the local sewer system. The conflict in Malibu has raged for years, and it has sparked a statewide effort (AB 885) to regulate the installation, inspection and operation of septic tanks. That effort stalled in early 2009 after a storm of protests from rural communities who feel that Malibu's problems are not theirs. The Malibu septic issue was apparently resolved in November 2009 when the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered a phase-out of septic systems in portions of the city. This decision was upheld by the State Water Resources Control Board in fall 2010.

For a video that summarizes all the pollution issues at Malibu, see The Flipside of Malibu.

In February 2011 Coast Law Group LLP (Encinitas) filed a lawsuit in Sacramento on behalf of environmental advocacy groups Heal the Ocean (Santa Barbara) and Heal the Bay (Santa Monica) challenging the failure of the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to adopt regulations or standards for the permitting and operating on-site wastewater treatment systems (“OWTS”), commonly known as “septic systems”, as required by Assembly Bill 885 and the California Water Code.

Water Quality Contact (Runoff and Outfalls)

State Water Resources Control Board contacts

Steve Weisberg, Executive Director
Southern California Coastal Water Research Project
3535 Harbor Blvd., Suite 110
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Phone: (714) 755-3200

Perception of Causes

California's long and diverse coastline has many different types of adjacent land use, which cause different types of water quality problems.

In Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area, the land is densely populated and supports urban uses. The densely populated coastline, coupled with channelization of many of the major rivers in urban areas and development on most of the wetlands, means that much of the "urban runoff" from the coastal population runs directly into the ocean with little or no treatment. The two main water quality problems in these areas are urban runoff that runs into the ocean year round (greatly increasing during rainstorms), and untreated sewage from sewage overflows. Over the last several decades, "point source" pollution from sewage treatment plants and industry has decreased dramatically, while nonpoint source pollution has gained more attention and is proving to be a difficult and expensive issue to address.

In parts of Southern California and large parts of Central and Northern California, agriculture and logging are the dominant land uses for land adjacent to the ocean. Fertilizers, pesticides, and animal wastes from agricultural operations run off into surrounding streams and rivers, and travel into the ocean, where they can cause nutrient pollution problems, and deposit bacteria that contaminate seafood and make the water unsafe to drink or swim in. Logging operations can create sedimentation problems that affect water clarity in the surrounding streams and rivers. During rainstorms, water erodes dirt from cleared land, and the dirt flows into nearby rivers and streams. The sediment deposited into the waterways reduces water clarity and alters channel characteristics, which affects the ability of fish to survive and reproduce.

Stormwater runoff is the largest source of coastal water pollution, and highways contribute much of it. California's roads accumulate pollutants such as zinc and copper dust from brake pads, small toxic particles from tires, as well as oil and grease. Tons of these pollutants run into our coastal waters, along with the biological pathogens, such as animal and human waste, for which water samples are tested.

The State Water Resources Control Board has the 2010 Integrated Report, Clean Water Act Sections 303(d) and 305(b) on their website. Additional supporting information for this report, impaired water bodies, and the state's Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program can be found on that website. In addition, here is a TMDL factsheet.

Other Water Quality Issues

Cruise Ships

Cruise ships have been described as "floating cities" and, like cities, they have a lot of pollution problems. Their per capita pollution is actually worse than a city of the same population, due to weak pollution control laws, lax enforcement, and the difficulty of detecting illegal discharges at sea. Cruise ships impact coastal waters in several US states, including Alaska, California, Florida, and Hawaii.

All cruise ships generate the following types of waste:

  • "Gray water" from sinks, showers, laundries and galleys
  • Sewage or "black water" from toilets
  • Oily bilge water
  • Hazardous wastes (including perchloroethylene from drycleaning, photo-processing wastes, paint waste, solvents, print shop wastes, fluorescent light bulbs, and batteries)
  • Solid wastes (plastic, paper, wood, cardboard, food waste, cans, and glass)
  • Air pollution from the ship's diesel engines

A 3,000-passenger cruise ship (considered an average size, some carry 5,000 or more passengers) generates the following amounts of waste on a typical one-week voyage:

  • 1 million gallons of "gray water"
  • 210,000 gallons of sewage
  • 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water
  • Over 100 gallons of hazardous or toxic waste
  • 50 tons of garbage and solid waste
  • Diesel exhaust emissions equivalent to thousands of automobiles

In addition, these ships take in large quantities of ballast water, which is seawater pumped into the hulls of ships to ensure stability. This water is typically taken in at one port and then discharged at the ship's destination, which can introduce invasive species and serious diseases into U.S. waters. A typical release of ballast water amounts to 1,000 metric tons.

The management and handling of the various forms of wastes generated by cruise ships has increasingly become a public concern due to the large number of cruise ships calling on California ports. In 2000, the Legislature enacted Division 37 of PRC (section 72300 et seq.) for the purpose of gathering information regarding cruise ships' waste management practices and evaluating their potential impacts on California's environment. The law required the Cal/EPA to convene the multi-agency Task Force to carry out this responsibility and to utilize the information gathered by the Task Force to prepare a report to the Legislature by June 1, 2003. The Executive Summary of the Task Force Report (August 2003) presents the following conclusions:

  • Cruise ships generate considerable quantities of sewage, gray/black water, bilge and ballast water, and solid wastes including hazardous materials.
  • Many large passenger vessels have installed Marine Sanitation Devices (MSDs), which are required to be approved by USCG. MSDs treat sewage before it is discharged to the sea. However, they frequently fail to meet current federal standards for discharge of effluent. In addition, MSD effluent is not subject to regular monitoring, except for those vessels that have received USCG approval to discharge in Alaska state waters.
  • Monitoring data published by the State of Alaska indicate that graywater discharges frequently exceed standards set for MSD effluent. Current state and federal laws have no established effluent standards that graywater is required to meet.
  • Cruise ships, along with other marine vessels, are a significant source of air pollutants in California, including criteria pollutants and toxic air contaminants.
  • Cruise ship engines are subject to little regulatory control compared to landside sources of emissions. If feasible controls are not implemented on cruise ships, a greater burden will be shifted to less cost-effective strategies for land-side sources of emissions.
  • State laws and regulations are intended primarily to address land-based hazardous waste facilities and generators. They are not specifically designed to regulate hazardous waste management activities in the cruise industry.
  • There is no state regulatory authority for disposal of solid waste, "garbage", while a ship is at sea.
  • The transfer of ballast water is an important issue in California and can lead to unwanted biological invasions through the discharge of large volumes of ballast water at ports throughout the state.

Therefore, the Task Force recommended that cruise ships be regulated by the state and that an inspection and monitoring program be implemented to protect the state's air and water quality and marine environment. The following is a summary of the Task Force's priority recommendations.

  • Establish an interagency Cruise Ship (or Vessel) Pollution Prevention and Enforcement Program with two options for implementation. Option 1: To assign a lead agency to implement the program, including on-board inspections. Option 2: To work within existing regulatory and enforcement programs through cross-media coordination and assess a regulatory fee.
  • Establish a funding mechanism for the Cruise Ship Prevention and Enforcement Program.
  • Amend the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) to allow California to establish a statewide discharge prohibition zone for sewage discharge from cruise ships only.
  • Graywater should be required, through statute, to meet the same standards required of MSD effluent or discharge should be withheld while in state waters.
  • Wastewater discharge should be prohibited in California's National Marine Sanctuaries.
  • More stringent exhaust emission standards for new marine vessel engines need to be quickly established on a national or international level.
  • Evaluate and implement the use of cleaner fuels and other feasible approaches to reduce air emissions from the existing oceangoing ship fleet in the 2004-2010 timeframe.
  • Clarify that the cruise industry is subject to hazardous waste generator requirements and inspections by Certified Unified Program Agencies (CUPAs) or DTSC at ports where cruise ships take on or disembark passengers; and provide education and outreach to the cruise industry regarding hazardous waste generator requirements.
  • Continue the state's mandatory ballast water program through legislative reauthorization.
  • Prohibit the discharge of any waste, food, or otherwise macerated waste into any marine sanctuary and within California coastal waters. Specify that any solid waste offloaded for disposal at a solid waste facility must meet the definition of solid waste in PRC 41091.

See Supplemental Report of the 2005 Budget Act Cruise Ship and Ocean-Going Vessel Waste Discharge Program.

Oil Spills

Oil washing into Santa Barbara Harbor in 1969 (
Workers try soak up oil in Santa Barbara Harbor after a devastating spill in 1969. (Don Cormier / Los Angeles Times)

The California coast has been impacted by oil spills since the massive oil spill near Santa Barbara in 1969. Other significant, damaging oil spills have included the American Trader oil spill off Huntington Beach in 1990.

On November 7, 2007, the container ship Cosco Busan collided with the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, spilling more than 50,000 gallons of fuel oil into San Francisco Bay. Because of the spill, more than 2,500 birds died and scores of beaches were closed—including three beaches that were closed for more than three weeks and seven beaches that were closed for more than a week. A package of oil spill legislation primarily aimed at improving oil spill response standards then made its way through the state legislature. Despite this, timely oil spill response was lacking during another another oil spill near Santa Barbara in 2015.

Harmful Algal Blooms and Domoic Acid

A naturally-occurring neurotoxin called domoic acid has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of sea lions in southern California during the last few years. Domoic acid is a chemical that is produced by algae or plankton when it blooms. Domoic acid was not discovered until the late 1980s, and scientists still don't understand why or when the algae blooms occur, nor can they predict which blooms will produce toxins and when they will impact wildlife. What is known is that anchovies, sardines, clams, mussels and other sea life ingest the algae. Then when sea lions (and to a lesser extent, dolphins) eat the anchovies and other affected sea life, they become sick.

The California Department of Public Health has produced marine biotoxin monitoring reports since 1999. A massive harmful algal bloom of Pseudo-nitzschia along the California coast escalated in April 2007, resulting in record toxin levels and hundreds of seabird and marine mammal deaths. This bloom impacted areas from San Luis Obispo south to Los Angeles. Pseudo-nitzschia produce a potent neurotoxin called domoic acid that can accumulate in shellfish and fish, such as sardines and anchovies, causing illness or death higher in the food chain. Humans that consume contaminated seafood can experience a syndrome called Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP). Currently, research in the Southern California Bight is being conducted to understand the relationships between toxic blooms and changing environmental conditions in Los Angeles coastal waters, where these blooms are a recurring problem. Other projects will develop and demonstrate an innovative intensive harmful algal bloom monitoring program that integrates in-situ sensor networking technology, state-of-the-art remote sensing, and cutting-edge species identification and domoic acid quantification methods, along with an economically sustainable monitoring plan for the California coastline.

Public Education

Numerous sources exist in California for information about ocean water quality, pollution sources, and pollution prevention. At the state level, most of this information and public education programs emanate from the State Water Resources Control Board. The education section of their website contains links to the California Regional Environmental Education Coordinator (CREEC) Environmental Education Network, and a long list of environmental education programs and resources for teachers, planners, and other decision makers.

Also see the new Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program (SWAMP) website that contains links to the Citizen Monitoring Program. The State Water Resources Control Board website also contains a California Non-point Source (NPS) Encyclopedia. The goal of this guidance document is to provide the best, most relevant information to state and local agencies, regional boards, and nonpoint source practitioners to assist them in identifying and implementing practices to protect high-quality waters and restore impaired waters. For more information on the state's NPS Implementation Program, for preventing and reducing polluted runoff, visit the NPS program website.

The California Coastal Commission's website has statewide Nonpoint Source (NPS) program information, which includes several links to related programs, reports and other agencies.

The California State Water Resources Control Board provides some good general information on water quality and storm water pollution.

Every five years, California's Regional Water Quality Control Boards reassess and re-issue Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits for major urbanized areas. As the Boards craft new permits, opportunities exist to strengthen and expand protection of beachwater quality from the greatest source of pollution: urban stormwater runoff. As part of the revamped cleanup plans, the water boards can stop pollution at the source by implementing low-impact development strategies. For instance, using trees, vegetation, wetlands, and open space in new developments minimizes impermeable surfaces, and therefore reduces polluted urban runoff. These strategies can cost-effectively reduce beach pollution.

Beach Water Quality Workgroups and other Safe to Swim workgroups meet in Northern and Southern California on a quarterly basis to coordinate beach water quality related monitoring, pollution abatement, public education, and public notification efforts.

Several educational resources are available through the California Coastal Commission:

  • Waves, Wetlands, and Watersheds is a classroom and community activity guide, first printed in 2003, that addresses issues such as endangered species, marine debris, coastal geology, water use, and much more. It is carefully aligned to the California State Science Content Standards for grades 3 through 8, and includes “Community Action” lessons adaptable for all ages up to and beyond 12th grade. The guide is available for free from the California Coastal Commission. Click here to order a free copy.
  • Save Our Seas is a marine curriculum of hands-on activities to help students understand the effects of marine debris on coastal wildlife and habitats. Written in 1993, it was designed for K-12 grades and can be used in conjunction with a beach cleanup. Request Item - SOS on the online Order Form.

California also has launched a Thank You Ocean campaign. One of the campaign’s goals is to educate the public about what they can do to improve beachwater quality, including contacting lawmakers about upcoming legislation.

Public education materials concerning water quality, pollution sources, and pollution prevention tips are also becoming more prevalent at the websites of county health departments, water districts, sanitation districts, and cities. An example is San Diego's Think Blue educational campaign. "Think Blue" seeks to educate residents, business, and industry about the causes of storm water pollution and the pollution prevention behaviors everyone can adopt.

California's Clean Marinas Program is a partnership of private marina owners, government marina operators and yacht clubs in California. The Clean Marinas Program was developed to provide clean facilities to the boating community and protect the state's waterways from pollution. Here is a list of Certified Clean Marinas in California.

The California Division of Boating and Waterways has Boating Educational Materials: an Annotated Catalog of Marina and Recreational Boater Pollution Education Materials. Included here are an extensive collection of audio-visual materials, booklets, brochures, factsheets, handbooks/manuals, leaflets/mailers, material for children, newsletters, maps, packets, point of purchase displays, posters, stickers, signs, wallet cards, and tide tables.

Algalita Marine Research Institute maintains a website that is a good source of information concerning the problem of plastics debris in the ocean. They offer several educational programs.

The film Watershed Revolution asks the question, “What is a watershed?” The answer is explored through interviews with people working to protect and preserve the Ventura River, while high definition cinematography brings to life the beauty of the river. The unique challenges faced by a river that is the sole source of water for a thirsty community are brought to life and will change forever your definition of a watershed.

Surfrider Foundation's The Cycle of Insanity: The Real Story of Water is an animated 19-minute film that explores how we use and misuse water. The water cycle we all learned about in the 4th grade has been dramatically altered over time, leaving us with a broken system that wastes water and energy, pollutes our natural waterways, harms critical marine life, and poorly deals with flooding and other water management problems. The film present solutions to this situation.

Education Contact

Annie Kohut Frankel
California Coastal Commission
Public Education Program
45 Fremont Street, Suite 2000
San Francisco, CA 94105
Phone: (415) 597-5888
Fax: (415) 904-5216

General Reference Documents

EPA has compiled several NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products that are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.

NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International City/County Management Association and Rhode Island Sea Grant, has released an interagency guide that adapts smart growth principles to the unique needs of coastal and waterfront communities. Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 coastal and waterfront-specific guidelines that help manage development while balancing environmental, economic, and quality of life issues.


  1. Orange County Grand Jury Report, 2001 and Orange County Infrastructure Report Card, 2002.

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